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Friday, October 21, 2022

Back in the mid-1970s, my Dad would bring periodicals home from his office in D.C. for me to read. It was a nice selection of news and financial publications that had made their way around the upper echelons of his government office, and when everyone had signed off as having thumbed through the publications, they were deemed up for grabs and available for anyone to take. Dad would toss them in his briefcase for his hour-long ride home to the suburbs, and give me a shot at them before they went into the trash.

For a kid in his early teens, the exposure was pretty rich. I had easy access to Time, Newsweek, Fortune, Forbes, Consumer Reports, etc. I received them dog-eared, highlighted, and usually a month old, but it was top-shelf material.

Out of the lot, my favorite publication was the Kiplinger Newsletter. In the midst of those glossy high-budget magazines, the Kiplinger letter was stark. It was simply text on unglossed paper with no graphics, but it was a pithy mix of economics, technology, and politics, with just a pinch of history thrown in. Presented in short, digestible paragraphs, it was the ultimate bathroom reader.

One of the stories I read back then was about a new lighting technology that was not only much more energy efficient than the incandescent bulbs and liquid crystal displays of the day but was also space efficient. Among the predictions made, one was that the new technology was so advanced, it would one day allow engineers to create more effective automobile headlights, and would even cause designers to totally reconfigure the grill on the family car.

That was in the mid-1970s. Gerald Ford was still in office, and the technology being described was the light-emitting diode, or what we know now as the LED. Imagine my delight when, around 2007, Lexus, Audi, and Mercedes began introducing adaptive “matrix” headlights in stylish diagonal arrays.

Clearly, anyone would most likely have lost money had they invested in that technology back in the mid-1970s. It took many years for it to reach fruition, but in a world where everyone is searching for the next hot, new technology investment, that one stands out as a big win for Kiplinger. Since then, I have been on the lookout for the next hot technology tip.

The latest hype to permeate my morning reading is “quantum” computing, which the venerable, old IBM describes as a “rapidly-emerging technology that harnesses the laws of quantum mechanics to solve problems too complex for classical computers.” That sounded approachable, so I attempted to read up on quantum computing and to be honest, I still don’t get it.

What I can understand is that quantum computers use circuitry that relies on superconductors to be able to tackle complex natural systems like chemical reactions and “folding proteins” that stump conventional supercomputers. I’m not even sure that I really, truly understand folding proteins, but I do wonder if quantum could have the power to hack blockchain technology and put billions of dollars at risk. That would upset a few folks.

What I am sure of is that for me, putting money into quantum would break one of Warren Buffett’s primary rules of investing, “Never invest in a business you cannot understand.” That’s why Buffett invests in Coca-Cola and Rose Blumkin’s furniture, and for me, for now, I’m staying away from quantum.

One new technology that I can understand is V2G (Vehicle to Grid) systems. As much as we enjoy booing and hissing at premature movements toward electric vehicles foisted upon us by overzealous politicians, there are actually some pretty neat ideas floating around for alternative uses of the technology.

As an ex-Boy Scout who is in many ways the polar opposite of your average Prius customer, I have always been enamored with the thought that a fringe benefit of electric vehicle (EV) ownership is that it produces enough energy to act as a backup generator for an entire home. That’s a silver lining all by itself, but some bright folks in the UK have developed software to network parked EVs in a way that supplements the local power grid during times of high usage. It’s like crowd-sourcing for electricity.

As with any EV technology, electricity is only a vehicle to carry energy provided by fuels that may or may not be clean, but the ability to pull from multiple sources during peak hours can be used to lower overall production costs. If we can set the politics aside, it’s a neat idea.

Another new technology that grabs my attention is Graphene, a one-atom-thick carbon material that has been around since the early 2000s. It has been touted as being 200 times stronger than steel and is a remarkable conductor of heat and electricity. Potential uses range from the reinforcement of concrete to uses in nanotechnology. As with quantum computing, the atomic structures described in the literature are well over the head of a guy who chases politics and economics for fun, but I can understand strength, weight, and conductivity.

There has also been a lot of talk about the “metaverse” lately, and out of curiosity, I’ve tooled around on the Meta website a few times. The word “dud” comes to mind, but that’s me. I’m sure that gamers look at it differently, and like any technology, there are most likely better applications to come.

Of course, there are plenty of other great technologies on the horizon, like “solid-state lithium” for next-gen batteries, brain-to-computer interfaces, 6-G network systems, CRISPR gene editing, and a bunch more. These things have all been on my mind lately, and I wonder what I have been missing, so I have recently subscribed to Kiplinger again after all these years (I had to pay for it this time). I can only guess that their many publications have changed over the ensuing decades, but I’m looking forward to seeing what’s new and what lies ahead, and like everyone else, I’m looking for the next LED.

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